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I having a little confusion with the different uses of Быть and hoping someone can help me clear it up.

  1. Мне было 6 лет.
    Мне было холодно.
  2. Он был хорошим человеком.
    Она была веселой.
  3. Всё было хорошо.

In (1) we have dative + Быть

In (2) we have nominative + Быть + instrumental long form adjective

In (3) we have nominative + быть + short form nominative adjective (or adverb?)

Can anyone explain why and when to use each of these forms or link me to a resource that explains them all in a single spot?

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  • kartaslov.ru/… this can be useful
    – kio21
    Feb 1, 2022 at 3:55
  • Remember: in Russian, the short forms of adjectives are not declined, they have only the Nominative case form, in 3 genders and 2 numbers. Хорошо in 3. is an adverb.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 1, 2022 at 4:24
  • Он был хорошим человеком. here был governs the whole noun clause хорошим человеком, not just the adjective. The case of the adjective хорошим is just negotiated the case of the noun.
    – il--ya
    Feb 1, 2022 at 7:47
  • Она была веселой is slightly ambiguous. Depending on the context, it could be interpreted as an ellipsis of она была весёлой (девушкой) "she was a cheerful girl", with nominalized весёлой indicating a permanent property. Or it could interpreted as она была (тогда) весёлой "she was happy then", in this case весёлой reflecting a temporary state.
    – il--ya
    Feb 1, 2022 at 8:01
  • Thanks @il--ya. I read that a permanent property was indicated by the nominative and a temporary property by the instrumental, i.e. Она была веселая девушка (she was always a happy girl), vs. Вчера она была веселой девушкой (yesterday she was happy, but it wasn't a permanent thing). Does that sound right? Feb 2, 2022 at 4:14

1 Answer 1

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Мне было 6 лет

This is an example of the so-called possessive dative (дательный притяжательный). It is used to describe relationships он мне друг "he's my friend", literally "he's a friend to me", она мне мать "she's my mother" etc.

Idiomatically, it's used to describe age as well. Romance languages, like Italian, also use possessive constructs to describe age: ho 6 anni "I'm six years old" (literally, "I have six years").

Мне было холодно

This is an impersonal predicative construct (безличный предикатив). They're used to describe feelings, emotions, states etc.

If you think about it, the English phrase "he's cold" can mean two things: it can mean that he literally is cold (has low body temperature), or it can mean "he's feeling (the sensation of) cold". In English, you can only distinguish these meanings from the context; in Russian, they use a different syntax: он холодный (his body is cold) vs. ему холодно (he's feeling cold).

Other predicatives like this are ему страшно "he's afraid", ему грустно "he's sad", amongst others. You'll have to learn them by heart.

Он был хорошим человеком

Она была веселой

These are personal statements with composite nominal predicates (личные предложения с составными именными сказуемыми). A composite nominal predicate consists of a verb and a nominal (noun or adjective) the verb governs.

Verbs like быть "to be", стать "to become", являться "to be" (literally, "to present oneself") govern the instrumental case.

The verb быть can also govern the nominative, and it's one of the rare cases where the feature of definiteness surfaces on a syntactic level in Russian: весна будет тёплая means "it will be a warm spring"; весна будет тёплой means "the spring will be warm". Стать and являться can only govern the instrumental.

Всё было хорошо

This means "all was well", just like in English. Хорошо here is an adverb, not a short adjective.

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  • That's great, thanks. How about in this case "На первый день все было прекрасно", is прекрасно an adverb or short form adjective? And is it было because of все (neuter). Feb 2, 2022 at 4:06
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    @MartinSlater: strictly speaking, it depends on the context, but I can hardly imagine a context where this particular phrase would use прекрасно as an adjective. If we consider this phrase: В человеке всё должно быть прекрасно — погоны, кокарда, исподнее. Иначе это не человек, а млекопитающее — here, прекрасно is a short adjective alright.
    – Quassnoi
    Feb 2, 2022 at 22:04

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